Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Monastic Habit

Many people recognize a worker by what clothes they wear. For example, a railroad engineer wears a distinct uniform, and nearly everyone knows them by the uniform they wear. The same can be said for monks and nuns; we wear a very distinct kind of clothing that identifies us as vowed religious. While not everyone knows what our clothes represent, many people recognize the monastic habit and are curious about the person wearing it.

The habit is intended to be a sign of simplicity. Many monks and nuns do not own secular clothing, and thus rely on the habit as their daily wear. For the dispersed monk or nun, the habit is optional, however many choose to wear it over secular clothing. For many it provides the same simplicity as the cloistered monk or nun. Those who wear the habit do not need to spend time picking out their clothes for the day, and likewise do not need to impress anyone with the holy clothing that they wear.

The habit is NOT intended to be worn as an item of social status or to attract attention to one’s self. Wearing a habit for these reasons demeans the nature of the cloth, and only serves to boost the ego of the person wearing it.

The habit IS meant to bring about humility in the person wearing it; the simplicity and unflattering nature of a monastic habit ought to bring a person down to earth and enforce the idea that the person wearing it belongs to their Creator and not to a social club or particular status of ego.

In closing, I would like to challenge any of you who wear the monastic habit to examine your intentions when it comes to wearing it. Do you seek the praise and curiosity of those around you, or do you seek to serve as a witness to the love of, and total belonging to your Creator?

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Loneliness Vs. Holy Solitude

The life of a hermit, or any monk or nun for that matter, can be lonely. The call to solitude and silence can be ominous, especially for the novice monastic. At this point in my monastic career, I have become accustomed to solitude and silence, however that does not mean that I do not still get lonely from time to time.

I will admit that it has taken me many, many years to convert my loneliness into holy solitude. This is done through prayer and meditation, as well as talking candidly with my spiritual director about my monastic way of life and the ups and downs it brings into my life.

The Rule of St. Benedict teaches that a monk or nun is always be praying, whether it is during liturgical prayer (such as the Divine Office), manual labor, Lectio Divina (also called Sacred Reading) or while doing a craft such as painting or knitting, prayer is to always be at the heart of what a person is doing.

This teaching has helped me greatly concerning loneliness vs. holy solitude. The more often I pray, the less lonely I am. I believe this is because in prayer, we are joined to the heart of God, which connects us to everything in Creation.

The community to which I belong in dispersed, meaning we live apart from one another. To add to that, there are great distances between us, with some of us in the United States, some in Canada, one in the Dominican Republic and one in Egypt. We don't exactly get to have face-to-face fellowship, so we chat online or over the phone instead.

Even though these channels of communication are always open to us, we don't always use them. I believe this is because of our vocation as hermits is to seek out solitude and silence, rather than chatting just to fill the empty spaces in our day. This is as it should be for hermits.

In closing, I would invite each of you to take 10 minutes out of your day to be completely alone and completely silent. This includes silence from your smartphones and other electronic devices. With practice, you may find that your outlook on life is more tempered and calm.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Compassionate Listening

The following is a talk given by Fr. Bjorn at the Lewis-Clark Center for Spiritual Living.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always a reflection of the loving spirit of God, our stronghold and our teacher.

The following is a poem by Christina Rossetti that my teacher read to me when I was in 2nd grade. I have carried it with me since then, and often reflect on its meaning. I invite you to take a few moments and reflect on what it might mean to you, and what it might teach us about listening for the still, small voice God in our lives.

Who has seen the wind? Neither I nor you,

but when the leaves hang trembling,

the wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind? Neither you, nor I.

But when the trees bow down their heads,

the wind is passing by.

It is an honor to be here among you; I offer my sincerest thanks on behalf of both myself and the monastic community to which I belong for the welcoming environment and the sincere connections that we have found here.

Within this sacred space, we come together to celebrate the movement of God in our lives and the lives of those around us. It has been a great source of joy and learning to me, to experience the genuine gratitude and fellowship shared in this space; my deepest self finds rest, refreshment and new ways of thinking each time I join with you in celebration of the great gifts we share.

I have observed that many, if not most of us have come to find some level of comfort with silence, and have experienced a place of stillness in which we are able to hear the voice of the Spirit that instructs us in the ways of love, self-discovery and profound internal growth.

The practice of mindful listening that is cultivated by our encounters with silence is near and dear to my heart. In order to nurture the kind of understanding that nourishes my spirit and enables me to carry out the tasks I am called to do, I must begin from a place of stillness and strive to maintain an attitude of listening as I attend to the work set before me.

In the same way, each of us are called to seek out that place of stillness where the Spirit moves freely and awakens us to our own ability to be a conduit of

God’s loving presence in the lives of those around us.

This does not mean that we should seek to convert others to our own ways and ideas about how we encounter God in our lives; such actions and attitudes are nothing more than self-service, which naturally leads to the exclusion of some who bear the greatest need for a profound encounter with the love that we know as God in their lives.

The kind of service I am talking about springs up like water drawn from a deep well; a well that, within each of us, is filled with a kind of refreshment that never runs dry.

From this pure and sacred place, we can find the tools needed for the work set before us, which is the work of compassionate listening. The most sacred attribute of this well is that the more we draw from it with the intention of freely sharing the gifts it bestows upon us, the more refreshing and plentiful it becomes, and is more readily shared with us, providing sanctuary and solace to our deepest and innermost selves.

There have been times in each of our lives where, in the face of great challenges, uncertainty or amidst the burdens of suffering that it may seem as if no one can hear the words, whether spoken or silent, that convey our deepest desires, which are to love and be loved, and to know and be known.

It may seem as if some of the people around us are simply biding their time in wait for their turn to speak; hearing our words but never our voice. This kind of insincerity can be devastating to a soul in suffering.

We must, therefore, be diligent in cultivating an attitude of listening that allows us to hear the true voices of those around us, which in turn allows for a profound communication that comes from a place of unadulterated compassion.

We must be mindful to the way we listen if we are to cultivate listening that is more than simply waiting for our turn to speak. Put your wandering thoughts and distractions aside and be present with the person who is in need of your ears.

These kinds of connections nourish us; they provide us with glimpses of affirmation on our paths toward a Godly state of being. This kind of profound nourishment can be easily seen if we take the time to look for it, both on an individual, as well as a collective level.

It is this form of connected awareness that can help guide us through the fog that clouds our ability to move through the suffering in our lives. In the same way, it can instruct us in the ways of guiding those around us who are overwhelmed by the suffering they experience.

I have a deep conviction that many, if not all of the great teachers throughout history, when speaking of loving one another as God loves us, had this kind of honest connection to our innermost state of being in mind.

Over the coming days, I encourage you to recall the meaning that the words spoken here today convey to your heart, and observe the ways in which you respond to the truth that you have found in your practice of listening.

May the abundant peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, that you may be a witness to the awesome love of God in the world.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Modern Hermit

In ancient times, men and women would move out into the wilderness, living in caves or small structures that they had built for themselves and observing a life of prayer, silence, fasting and sacred reading. These people were known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and they were the first recorded Christian monastics.

Their hermitages or clusters (also known as a Laura) were often visited by pilgrims seeking wisdom and those seeking to take on the eremitic life for themselves. Newcomers would be tested to see if they could handle the often harsh conditions of this way of monastic life, and many would fail. For more about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, see "Desert Fathers and Mothers".

Today hermits live a very different lifestyle than their earlier predecessors. Many hermits nowadays live in cities, with their homes serving as their hermitages. Some work secular jobs while others are retired or disabled, but all of them share in a holy solitude as much as is possible given their circumstances.

Very few modern hermits receive visitors. Some belong to religious orders that are dispersed (meaning they live apart from one another), and some are simply solitaries who have professed monastic vows. Whatever the case may be, they all share in the historic life of prayer, meditation, solitude, study, and work.

I myself belong to a small dispersed community. I have the luxury of living out in the country in a rented house that serves as my monastic enclosure, which I do not leave unless it is absolutely necessary (for reasons such as procuring groceries or doctors appointments). I am disabled, so I am free to devote all of my time to the monastic life. The gentle rhythm of pray, eat, and work dictates my days, and there is a high level of environmental silence with the exception of the noise from the farm on which my house sits.

In some ways, the life of the modern hermit is much, much easier than that of the desert fathers and mothers, and in some ways it is more difficult. Holy solitude and environmental silence are hard to find if you live in a city, and for many modern hermits, secular work is necessary for their sustenance.

Whatever the life circumstances of the modern hermit may be, the driving force of their vocation is the same: a deep and consuming desire to serve their Creator.

Question for reflection: How might I better serve my Creator?

How to Love Your Neighbor

In yesterday's fellowship hour, we were reminded by novice Br. Elisha Therese that we are called to love. This means loving our Creator, ourselves and our neighbors, and praying for those who would harm us.

When I consider what would drive a person do to a hateful and evil thing, I wonder how badly such a person has been wounded in their life, and how much pain and suffering they carry around with them, most times without even knowing it. It makes me very sad to think that some people carry such burdens and that the only way they know how to deal with them is to lash out at others, in fear and anguish.

When I look at the world at large, I see the same anguish and hatred being perpetuated repeatedly, in many different forms such as the fight for equal rights, access to healthcare, starvation, and most especially war, both for profit and for religious ideals.

I often ask myself how to bandage the wounds of the world. The answer is quite simple in logic, but very difficult in its execution; to cultivate peace and act with love.

You're probably thinking, how do we do such a thing in the midst of all of this hatred?

Every small act of kindness cultivates peace, whether it is a smile, holding the door for someone or providing ears to hear them; these small acts cultivate both inner and outer peace in us and the people we come into contact with.

So, the first step toward following our Creator's command to love is to seek peace, first within ourselves, second within our communities and third in the world at large. Love will naturally follow, but we must work harder at loving one another than simply being nice to one another.

Loving one another is a great beast to slay; people always seem to be trying their best to resist both the love of their creator and the love given to them by their fellow human beings. It is my belief that this is caused by a cultural programming of "you're not good enough, rich enough or pretty enough unless you buy the right car, smoke the right cigarette and believe in the right image of God".

It takes much, much more work to love a person than to simply make peace with them. But this the work that has been set before us by our Creator, and must be attended to with the same enthusiasm as seeking peace.

As monastics, we spend our lives learning to do this single task. Because of our dedication to learning to love as God loves, other fruits of the spirit spring up naturally and with seemingly great ease. For example, I do not debate on whether to open a door for, or to smile at a stranger, I simply do it because it is the peaceful and loving thing to do.

But what about those who have wronged us? What do we do with the people who have hurt us so badly that we find it nigh impossible to truly forgive them, let alone love them?

We are taught through the Gospels that we are to pray for them and to offer them the peace of God. Their actions are a reflection of their heart. As I mentioned before, a person who does an evil or hurtful thing must be hurting inside, and so we must pray for our Creator to heal them. If we approach the situation from this point of view, forgiveness is not only possible, but it becomes easy.
I encourage you to take ten minutes each day and reflect on who is hurting in your life. You can probably guess correctly if you look for the warning signs; anger, manipulative, judgemental and dishonest behaviors, and gossip, just to name a few. These are the people who need forgiving, who need love, who thirst for peace.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Attitude of Silence

If you have ever visited a monastery, it is likely that one of the first things you notice about it is that it is usually completely silent. From the way people greet each other to the way people walk, there is a quiet reverence within the walls of the monastic buildings and around the grounds of the monastery as well.

For some, this level of environmental quiet brings a peaceful interior rest, while for others, it is more than a little unsettling. This level of silence can quiet our fears and refresh our souls, but it can also stir up a small amount of terror or make our thoughts nearly deafening within us.

At this point in your formation, you ought to have become acquainted, and to some level, comfortable with environmental silence. This should apply to both to speaking and technological devices; each of us should have at least one period of total environmental silence each day.

But what about the noises we can’t control? The birds will continue to chirp, household appliances buzz off and on and for those of you who live in metropolitan areas, you have the noise of passing cars, busy people and a long list of other possible noises.

This is where our attitudes come into the spotlight. Having an “attitude of silence” isn’t just about being quiet despite a noisy environment. In order to effectively maintain your interior silence in the midst of environmental noise, you must learn to keep the noise from being an annoyance.

When we are annoyed it is easy to slip into a state of anger, which can easily disrupt our decorum. Being annoyed also makes it easy to be confrontational, argumentative, bitter and uncharitable toward others. So, how do we attain the kind of interior silence that lets us be at peace despite noise?

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. It can probably be said for certain that none of us have achieved the level of silence needed to be perfectly at peace in the midst of noise. It can also be said that developing and attitude of interior quietness will go a long way toward ensuring decorum is kept and a joyful outlook is within our reach.

Many years ago, I found myself on retreat at a hermitage in the middle of the Texas desert. The
superior of that community, during one of our spiritual direction chats, articulated to me that in order for her to truly reach a contemplative state, that there needed to be perfect environmental silence around her.

At the time, I agreed with her. Of course silence on an environmental level was necessary for contemplation. How could it happen any other way? I was still a very green 26 years old at the time, and had yet to truly experience the inner stillness of which she spoke.

She further articulated to me that when there was not perfect silence around her, that it wore on her nerves, sometimes to the point of bringing her to tears. Friends, this holy woman is not the only person to tell me this story, and I have been guilty of acting it out myself from time to time.

Now that I am older, I look back on this shared moment between myself and the good Superior of that hermitage, and I think to myself, “well, that’s just silly.”

You see the enclosure in which I currently find myself is quite remote, and even out here there is rarely perfect environmental silence. Birds chirp, dogs bark, sheep bleat, the wind blows and the house creaks and settles. Even though I do enjoy a high level of environmental silence, it is far from perfect.

It has since occurred to me that, where contemplative prayer, personal silence and monastic discipline are concerned, it is the personal intention to be quiet that matters more than environmental silence. I like to call this “the attitude of silence”, because it is the intention of the person to be silent, rather than the situation that they find themselves in that provokes silence within them.

So, let the birds sing, the house creak and the wind blow. These things are beyond our control anyway, so there is little use in getting upset because they infringe on your perfect silence. Harbor the attitude of silence and I guarantee that you will find yourself just as still and satisfied as those who do enjoy perfect environmental silence.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Lover vs. The Dictator

A Franciscan priest who I am a great fan of, Fr. Richard Rohr, said something that struck a chord deep within me. He said: “Those who know God well - mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God - always meet a lover, not a dictator.”
This statement spurred me toward a line of thinking that led me to several questions, the first being, “In my life, how much am I willing to risk to truly encounter the Spirit”, and subsequently, “am I living authentically the life I have been called to, which is a life of humility, prayer and reflection?”

The same questions could be asked of each of us in with respect to the lives that we have been called to live. After all, mysticism is not just for those who give up their worldly possessions in exchange for a simple robe, it is for anyone who truly wishes and strives to seek after it.

As many who are called to the monastic way of life will tell you, giving up our fancy clothes and putting on a simple robe is probably the easiest part of what we do. Self-examination, a constant attitude of prayerfulness and a life of putting others’ needs before our own wants - these things are the hard parts of our calling to make a way of life out of actively searching for the God of our hearts.

That is not to say that our lives are filled with suffering, or that these difficult things prevent us from finding happiness; on the contrary, the monastic way of life brings with it a kind of joy that is both exquisite and indescribable, and many gifts that we, as hermits, monks, nuns, friars and sisters would often not have found by any other means. To be honest, I stumble concerning those things which I am called to do. I get angry, I harbor uncharitable thoughts, I miss prayer times and I have been known to purchase things that I do not need, either out of impulse or a fear of not having enough.

In short, I fail to trust in God, and I fail to always seek after God. My faults aside, I have found in my life that many people are perplexed by the idea of indescribable joy in relation to God. The God that they have heard of through various means such as their church leaders, misinterpretations of texts held as holy and society in general paint for them a picture of an angry, judgemental and wrathful creature who examines their every thought and action, looking for faults, shortcomings and their good intentions which are “not-good-enough” in this awful and enraged being’s eyes.

Who could fall in love with a God such as this? Who could be inspired to carry out charitable works that uplift the poor and the broken? Surely some could be moved to these tasks, but their inspiration comes from a place of fear and paranoia as opposed to the place of indescribable love and joy that was mentioned earlier. Who would want to live their life in such terror?

And yet so many people do. They crowd into churches to hear the woeful tales of The Dictator-God and fall on their their knees to beg forgiveness of sins they are not even guilty of. This happens week after week, and for many, this happens for the entirety of their lives.

What a sad and terrible way to live. So how did so many overcome this terrible image and find the profound and inexpressible love and joy that mystics, monastics and people who make their own daily lives an expression of prayer?

Now, I’m no expert, but I would venture to say that these kinds of ecstatic experiences began with the words “Be still.” Someone, somewhere heard these words and took them to heart, and in that sweet stillness they found something so exquisite that their only choice was to make a life out of trying to experience it again and again.

This practice would come to be known as mysticism, and it can be seen in virtually every faith known to humans. The great thing about mysticism is that a person need not give up all their earthly possessions and take on a life of discipline and simplicity (although some choose to do so) in order to experience the innumerable benefits that it has to offer; a person simply needs to make an intentional practice out of being still before God.

I say this, not to discount the lives of those who have given everything in favor of prayerful discipline and simplicity, but to invite everyone to escape the bonds of fearful living and enter the valley of absolute delight which is the love of God.

As anyone who has glimpsed this bright and beautiful place will tell you, visiting it will not free you from the day-to-day monotony, the ups-and-downs, doubts, and the sometimes overwhelmingly painful state of human existence. This joyful beauty will, however, when integrated into the very fabric of who you are, make all of these things easier to deal with.

So, in your bustling and hurried lives, you might consider taking 10 small minutes each day to try and be still. Leave your cares, your worries, your to-do lists and your ego at the door to a quiet room and just be still. You may be surprised how, little by little, you are transformed from within from a fearful and wrathful person into a joyful and loving one because in the end, we reflect what our image of God is by our behavior.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Answering the Call

Have you ever wondered what the monastic life is really like?

Have you felt drawn to it?

If so, please consider viewing the short vocational video I made for those considering the monastic way of life:

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Light Burden

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light." -Mt. 11:28
There is a saying that proposes that the monastic life is one of holy leisure. As anyone who has lived a monastic life will tell you, this is not how it appears from the inside. There are chores to be done, people to be fed, and prayers to be said; indeed the life of a monastic is very busy.
Although the monastic has very few free moments in his or her day, they are generally more willing to give of that free time to others than their secular counterparts (this is simply my observation). I once encountered a monk on retreat who interrupted his silence to welcome me, though I was not a member of his order. This is telling; the retreat (that is to say the withdrawal away from the business of the monastery for a time of intense silent reflection) is held by many monastic houses in the highest regard, and is typically not to be interfered with by insiders or outsiders alike.
The charity of that monk will always stick with me. He broke more than a few rules to show me kindness, and for that I am eternally grateful. But I digress.
When I compare all the work (that being manual labor and prayer alike) that I do to any job I had in my secular life, my work seems quite easy. Sure there are chores that I would rather not do and times when I would rather be sleeping than praying but who doesn't desire to be resting when they are working instead?
One of the most important teachings of the monastic life is turning work into prayer. If you begin your work with prayer and pray while you are working, then the labor before you becomes an act of sacrifice and thanksgiving to your Creator instead of a dreaded chore that we may drag our feet to accomplish. In this way the work we do becomes easy and worthwhile.
I encourage you to give prayerful work a try. You may find that, as the passage above from the Gospel of St. Matthew says, the yoke is easier and the burden is lighter.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Eternal Novitiate

Hosea, chapter 2, verse 14:

"Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her."

Many people question what would lead a person to live a monastic life. The above passage pretty much sums it up for me; the sweetness of my Creator's voice in the silence of my heart outweighs any burden that the monastic way of life could place upon me.

A sincere monastic knows that they do not come to this way of life as a perfect person. I stumble, fall, and lose my way on a regular basis. It is only through the grace and mercy of my Creator that I am able to get back up, dust myself off, and continue on the narrow path that leads me to salvation.

I have been a monk in one form or another for 11 years now. Although I have made my lifelong profession of vows, I still consider myself a spiritual novice. I still have much to learn in the school of God's service; I must learn how to love more, pray more, be kinder and show more generosity to those around me. 

I have these and many more lessons to learn, and it will probably take the span of my lifetime and more to learn them. It is my hope that through adherence to my Rule of Life, a sincere thirst for generosity and love, and the help of my brothers and sisters that I will arrive at my death changed for the better.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Recognizing God

There is a saying that I have seen circulating around social media that says, "if you can not find Christ in the beggar on the street, you will not find Him in the Chalice".

Powerful words.

One of the vows that members of the community I belong to take is the vow of Stewardship. This means that we vow to care for the environment in which we live and the people in our lives with patience, compassion, and generosity.

It is part of my Rule of Life to reflect on this vow by regularly asking the following questions:
  • How do I care for the world around me?
  • How do I care for the people in my life?
  • Am I able to recognize my Creator's presence in all things and in all people? 
I admit that the answers to these questions are not always as they should be. There are times when I struggle to be responsible, caring, and humble, and there are times when I am unable to recognize God in the world around me and in the people in my life.

One example is when I'm in line to check out at the grocery store. Like everyone else, I want to get it done and over with quickly and without as few problems as possible. While I am now a lot less prone to irritation and downright bad behavior, there are many times where I have been less than charitable toward the other people in line and the person working the cash register.

It is not often enough that I catch myself falling into bad behaviors in time to make amends for them. Often times it is only upon reflection at the end of the day that I realize that I could have been kinder, more gentle and more charitable to the people I meet, as well as the environment in which I live. (For example, I could have picked up someone else's garbage, but I made feeble excuses like being in a hurry or not wanting to get my hands dirty.)

So, dear sisters and brothers, now that my dirty laundry has been aired, I invite you to share in the above listed reflections. We can always be kinder, gentler, and more charitable. The real question is are we open enough let our Creator into our lives, so that we may see Its reflection in the world around us?

Monday, August 14, 2017

What's Love Got to do With It?

When I talk about my vocation with monks or nuns who have been in vows longer than I have, I often hear the phrase "God never said it would be easy, only that it would be worth it". I'm sure many other people on many other paths have heard the same thing, however the choice of living out a monastic vocation (if it really is a choice) is an especially difficult way to live.

One of the key differences between a monastic life and a secular life us that the monastic is called to begin  every action out of a place of love. I do not mean the kind of love that spurs romantic interest, but the kind of love that overcomes hate, lifts the broken and comforts the afflicted.

In light of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, the dispersed order that I belong to held a collective candlelight vigil for the victims of the violence that took place there, but our vigil was about more than just the victims; it was also in hope that love might overcome the hatred that caused the attack in the first place.

As Dr. ML King said, "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate can not drive out hate, only love can do that".

Let us then strive to cultivate love within ourselves. Each small act of love will eventually add up to large acts of love which can drive out hatred and darkness.